Budget 2022: Food for thought

Paolo Kernahan -
Paolo Kernahan -

I'M SITTING here eating my ham and cheese sandwich in-between bursts of typing (and laughing), wondering whether you're having yours with butter or chow chow.

In Finance Minister Colm Imbert's world, this sandwich is the nation's favourite. Out in the real world where the rest of us live, our existence bears little resemblance to Imbert's ham and cheese utopia.

In his 2021/2022 budget presentation, the minister triumphantly declared foods exempt from VAT to ease the burden on financially-hamstrung citizens – biscuits, juice, ketchup, and pigtaaail! His voice trilled with a frisson of accomplishment, yet nary a tincture of the more appropriate shame. By the way, biscuits in the local lexicon refers to both cookies and crackers. That's an overlap the Supermarkets Association of TT (SATT) will have to grapple with in their dealings with this zero-rated administration.

Eager to convince people there's some vapour of rationale behind this budget, Imbert says research guided his hand. Nothing too detailed, apparently, as it was revealed some items like curry, announced with great relish (or chow chow) are already VAT exempt. Leave it to SATT to take the wind out of the minister's...wind. Imbert tried to dismiss this oversight by saying the addition of curry to his new list was a typo – because I always type curry when I mean to write furry. Blasted autoconnect.

Most peculiarly, Imbert suggested his list of zero-rated foods was influenced by the Government's thrust to encourage healthy lifestyles.

Covid19 exposed the vast number of citizens stricken with chronic health troubles. Patients whose lifestyle diseases are, in part, powered by poor diets, burden the creaking health system. Yet the Government sidestepped an opportunity to nudge consumers in the direction of healthy eating through the budget. If anything, it has done the opposite. In policy, the State has further entrenched the role high-sodium and sugary food and drink play in the health profiles of our people.

For Imbert, healthier foods like imported fruits, dates and nuts are considered luxury goods. You'd swear we're all pharaohs being fanned by eunuchs as we nibble on these delectables. Truth be known, fruits, nuts and dates are far healthier snack options compared to the chemical warfare waged by the more popular cheese-based snacks. The Government seems far more comfortable having citizens fill their baskets with ketchup, biscuit(s), and corned beef than healthy foods.

In last year's budget, the Finance Minister had announced that VAT would be applied to apples and grapes. This measure was meant to help “control” the outflow of foreign exchange. However, if you look more closely at the question of imported fruit and the taxes they attract, it becomes even more confusing. The cost of apples and grapes has increased noticeably, but is it because of VAT and import duties?

In January, the Government hadn't yet implemented VAT on these fruits of the gods. I did my own research and purchased a modest amount of apples, grapes and pears this week (I'm no Elon Musk). No VAT was reflected on the bill for the apples and grapes. VAT, however, was applied to the pears.

If VAT hasn't yet been applied to apples and grapes but the Government declared its intention to do so, it could show up on your bill any day now. It would make more sense, from a health perspective, to render all imported fruits zero-rated to keep the pricing within reach of the average consumer. This would encourage citizens to make fruit a more regular part of their diets.

If the minister is concerned about the food import bill, he should weigh that against the infinitely higher costs of treating non-communicable diseases. He also needs to come up with a better plan for our agriculture industry, so local farmers can supply a greater variety of tropical fruits.

Yes, lower-income families undoubtedly depend on the economy of products like corned beef. Eating “cheaply,” though, has a way of paying deadly dividends in the long run. The cumulative effects of poor eating habits can lead to long-term health consequences that far outweigh the convenience and cost savings of the Government's food basket.

For all Imbert's insistence that an abundance of thought was invested in the budget, there is little in the document to support his claim. Increasingly, the budget is more an in-term manifesto than a fiscal policy document. As such, it leaves you feeling full, but malnourished and certainly quite ill in the long run.


"Budget 2022: Food for thought"

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